Historic barn to rustic wedding venue - James Mills talks Woolas Barn and its painstaking renovation

A pigsty, a granary and lambing pens comprise the former uses of a 19th century barn on Woolas Grange Farm, south of York. Having fallen out of everyday use in a traditional farming sense, the brick-built structure, once the working place of prisoners of war, has been reinvented as a somewhat more romantic setting.

James Mills at Woolas Barn, which has been converted into a wedding venue after falling out of agricultural use. Picture by Simon Hulme.

Given a new lease of life for the modern age, the barn is about to be launched as a rustic wedding reception venue after a renovation that owes much to both family and industry circumstances.

At the age of 30, James Mills returned to his parents’ farm in the neatly-kept village of Appleton Roebuck last year. Having spent his early career in the agricultural industry away from home, including a spell with the National Farmers’ Union in Brussels, James, one of three siblings, now farms in partnership with his mother Jill and father Charles, the show director at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society.

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To enable James to do so, and with one eye on farming’s likely Brexit-induced upheaval, the family recognised the need to add an extra element to their business.

Woolas Barn was first built in 1863 and was extended after the First World War. Picture by Charlotte Graham/CAG Photography.

“We needed to generate more income for me to return to the business,” says James, now 31. “The business is in a good position but farming faces a lot of challenges over the next five to ten years so this is our insurance policy if you like. It has also been about preserving an existing asset and utilising it.”

The approach to the farm is a winding hedge-lined drive. It offers scant glimpses of what awaits around the final bend so that on arrival at a large gravelled-off courtyard, complete with fire pit, the barn rears with some impact, though tastefully retaining its traditional aesthetic – a condition that James’ father insisted upon.

Positioned at the top of a gentle incline and offering a vista over the lush farmland plains of the Vale of York, the sympathetic, careful conversion of the Woolas Barn becomes apparent only when its huge double doors are drawn open to reveal its statement glass-fronted entrance.

Stepping inside, a large versatile space opens up with snug areas on a mezzanine level via a stairway opposite the entrance. It is easy to imagine the happy couple posing for pictures in their finery from the balcony at the top.

The barn doors are pulled open to reveal a dramatic glass entrance. Picture by Charlotte Graham/CAG Photography.

Upstairs, either side of the staircase are two other spaces, one with a grain funnel cunningly retained in the guise of seating.

Back downstairs and to the right of the entrance is a large alcove where a band or a DJ could be positioned. To the left is a bar area before a barn door on rollers pulls open and reveals a spacious L-shaped room which is ideal for the wedding breakfast. A beautiful focal point is the timber ceiling frame where beams meet in the centre.

To the rear is a door leading to a kitchen area for caterers to work in.

With clear excitement, James says: “We think we have got a unique place here, somewhere that reflects what we are about as a family and a business, and shows the history of that. We want to give people a blank canvas that they can put their own stamp on.”

The main part of the barn has stood on this site since 1863. An extension was added after the First World War and up until recently it was used to store tools. For two months of the year it housed lambing pens.

The Mills family has lived and worked at Woolas Grange since James’ grandparents arrived just after the Second World War. Formerly in the hands of the Government, three German prisoners of war were put to work on the farm and the name “Fritz” was discovered etched into a wooden beam when the barn’s renovation was carried out. The beam has been retained as a historical feature.

Semi-retired structural engineer Chris Doyle led the design work, ensuring the family’s vision for the barn became a reality. A local builder and carpenter were then appointed but James and his father Charles endeavoured to carry out as much of the work as they could, including replacing tiles on the roof last summer.

A pressing deadline meant the work continued apace. James’ sister Anna held her wedding celebrations in the barn in September, a day after the final touches were applied.

James sees the conversion as a statement of the family’s intent, one that goes beyond its role as a wedding venue.

“We want to host weddings but we also want to bring people onto the farm and talk about what we do. We want to welcome the community and bring them together.

“And this is not just about our farm. We hope that local businesses benefit from the wedding venue – the local pub and B&Bs. We want to be part of keeping the rural economy going.”

Farming operations, meanwhile, remain integral at Woolas Grange where a 250 ewe flock is run alongside a 400-acre mixed arable rotation.

James adds: “For the farm, the wedding barn is a diversion away from what we have traditionally done. People think of farmers as being almost reclusive but we don’t want to be that. We want to be part of the community and at the same time produce good quality food. We want to do everything to the best of our ability.”

Follow Woolas Barn on Instagram via @woolasbarn or for more details visit www.woolasbarn.wedding